South of Hitler: Marcel W. Fodor and the Manchester Guardian

Sandra Cruise, who is cataloguing the inter-war European Foreign Correspondence in the Guardian Archive, writes:   

One of the journalists featured in the Manchester Guardian‘s foreign correspondence archive is Marcel W. Fodor, who chronicled events in Austria and the Balkans for virtually two decades from his base in Vienna and central Europe. Besides the Manchester Guardian, he also wrote for various American newspapers over the course of his career.

One of the strengths of the Guardian archive lies in its chronicling of the developing situation in the smaller and lesser known countries of central and south-eastern Europe by the Vienna and Balkans correspondent, Marcel Fodor, areas which, during the late 1930s, were increasingly becoming victims of Hitler’s expansionism and influence. Fodor’s vast and detailed knowledge of the politics not only of Austria, but also of the Balkan states, a subject the editor thought that British people found difficult to follow, is poured out into a series of detailed memoranda. He made regular Balkan journeys, his itinerary including Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey; he was somewhat ahead of his rivals in having visited Turkey before other newspapers’ correspondents; one of his memoranda even refers to Albania. In March 1939, an eight week trip included Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, where, amongst other things, he gathered information on Russia and the Ukraine from various contacts, as he was unable to obtain a visa for a short visit to Russia.

 Fodor’s character is not as evident from his missives as that of some of the other correspondents, notably Dell, who has been the subject of a previous blog post, but his experiences were amongst the most dramatic. Born in Hungary in 1890, his parents were wealthy industrialists and bankers, his father owning two newspapers. After gaining a degree in engineering in 1911, he left Hungary for England, intending to improve his English. After a short spell in London, he headed to Sheffield, where he attended Professor John Arnold’s lectures in metallurgy, this background no doubt explaining his later proficiency in detailing the natural resources available to Germany in 1939. From 1912 he worked at the Frodingham Iron and Steel Company in Scunthorpe, where he established a research laboratory, and rose to the position of assistant manager of the melting department, but war was to interrupt his developing industrial career, being interned as an enemy alien on the outbreak of the First World War. He was released in March 1917, carrying out ‘important war work’ on the estate of Lord Mowbray at Allerton, near Knaresborough. He returned to Hungary in 1919 on his father’s death, when he tried, largely unsuccessfully, to salvage something of the family’s fortune; his mother became a victim of the Béla Kún regime, dying in April 1919.

Fodor related that his journalistic career with the Manchester Guardian began in August 1919 in Budapest; four years later he was appointed correspondent for Austria and the Balkans, remaining in Vienna until forced to flee the German advance in the Anschluss of March 1938; leaving his possessions behind, he was seen across the border by the Military Attaché of the American Chargé d’Affaires in Vienna. For the next eighteen months he kept one step ahead of the advancing Germans, as he moved from place to place. His next destination, Prague, was short-lived; living in fear of invasion in what he likened to ‘a besieged city’, he managed to leave before the Germans severed the road and rail links. He describes the difficult journeys, closed frontiers, the censorship and restricted communication, which made his job difficult, and complains to W. P. Crozier (the Manchester Guardian’s editor) that people in England did not understand how difficult things were in central Europe.

Extract from a letter sent by Fodor to W.P. Crozier in October 1938
Extract from a letter sent by Fodor to W. P. Crozier in October 1938

Fodor’s immediate future after the Anschluss was in crisis; he had left possessions and papers in Vienna and Prague as he made emergency exits from both countries; his salary from the Manchester Guardian was not sufficient, and despite an increase made in August 1938, still remained less than that of Dell in Geneva; as a Hungarian Jew in an increasingly German-dominated Europe, he needed the protection of another country to carry on his work; an attempt to gain British citizenship failed; he visited America on a lecture tour in 1938, successfully beginning an application for American citizenship, while the Manchester Guardian sought to find him a suitable base from which to work. Fodor eventually found refuge in America, and gained his naturalisation in 1943, but in the meantime he returned to Europe, basing himself in Zürich at the behest of the Chicago Daily News, for whom he had worked for some years, yet still writing for the Manchester Guardian. Danger did not prevent him from returning to visit Prague later in 1938, which he described as ‘a terrible return’, and recalls a detailed conversation with Göbbels’s chief agent there.

Extract from another 1938 letter to Crozier, in which Fodor describes leaving his possessions behind in Vienna.
Extract from another 1938 letter to Crozier, in which Fodor describes leaving his possessions behind in Vienna.

Fodor’s reputation for knowledge was legendary; William Shirer, another foreign correspondent, described him as ‘a walking dictionary on central Europe’. According to another biographer, this facility for acquiring and retaining information was developed in his youth. Fluent in at least five languages and familiar with leading figures in many countries, it is easy to see how other journalists flocked round him, as he willingly shared his knowledge in the Café Louvre in Vienna, which he regularly frequented, encouraging younger, up and coming journalists.  Amongst his company were eminent journalists and writers, notably Dorothy Thompson and John Gunther. The latter described Fodor as having ‘the most acutely comprehensive knowledge of Central Europe of any journalist I know’, and on a personal basis described him as ‘one of the true good men of this earth, generous to a fault and incredibly kind.’

His book, South of Hitler was published in 1937, alternatively titled Plot and counter-plot in central Europe in America as he was told by the publisher’s representatives that at the time no book with Hitler in the title could be sold there. In 1940 he removed to America, but later returned to Europe to resume his correspondent role for American papers. In the late 1940s, he accepted a post with the American occupation forces in Berlin. A short interview with him in the city in 1953 can be found in Edward Murrow’s ‘See it Now’ programme (the interview begins at minute 29.40). From 1949 to 1955 he was editor of Die Neue Zeitung in Berlin. He worked for the Voice of America and the U.S. Information Agency, before retiring in 1964; he died in Germany, aged 87 in 1977.

Images are reproduced courtesy of Guardian News and Media Ltd.

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